A bit more than a year later, Finland formally joined the military bloc, spurred into the alliance by the reality of Russian aggression and President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist revanchism. Overnight, NATO’s border with Russia doubled in length.
In June, Finland inaugurated a new center-right government. Though its domestic agendas are different from its predecessor, with a far-right faction in the ruling coalition, its approach to supporting Ukraine and the broader Western effort to resist Russia’s invasion has endured. On the sidelines of U.N. meetings in New York last week, I spoke with Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen on life in NATO and the prospects of the war. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Today’s WorldView: How does it feel to be a full-fledged NATO member after all these years?
Valtonen: It feels good. Personally, I’ve been advocating Finnish membership in NATO for as long as I can remember. Now, there’s a very strong majority of Finns who are in favor of us being in NATO and, if it wasn’t so, Finland never would have joined. There are these Russian narratives around that NATO is a threat or NATO enlargement is a threat, but it’s important to realize that NATO in and of itself doesn’t enlarge. It’s the free people in democratic societies who vote or choose to join, and that was the case for Finland and Sweden, as well, once they are let in. We were pretty close to NATO anyway so in a way it was just a natural step. Our military was almost 100 percent interoperable with NATO as it was.
I think we feel more secure and that was obviously the reason we wanted to join. But it has to be said that we take pride in being net contributors to NATO. We reached the 2 percent [of gross domestic product] target of defense spending easily this year. And we have very strong capabilities, which can be of significant use to the alliance, including one of the largest reservist armies in Europe even though we are a small population.
Sweden’s accession is still awaiting Turkish approval, and the recent signs aren’t that positive. Is there a scenario where Sweden doesn’t join NATO for quite some time?
There might be different scenarios. Turkey is a sovereign country and they are free to decide as they wish, but I’m pretty confident that they will move soon. President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan promised already in July that he would give a green light to Sweden. Now, the parliament in Turkey has been in recess, and they are coming back in October. So I would wish that in October, they are ready to go ahead.
How do you assess the current trajectory of the war in Ukraine? There are growing concerns about the pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the West’s political and economic ability to sustain Kyiv.
In democracies, the political climate can always change, but I am confident that our core values and the future that all of us as individuals here in the free West are driving for [mean that] it really pays off to help Ukraine. Aiding Ukraine is not charity. It’s standing up for the European way of life, in this case, Western values and of course, it’s the [country’s] sovereignty, territorial integrity, and those are the values that we share. What would happen if we let go of Ukraine or stopped helping them? Perhaps there wouldn’t be Ukraine, but there certainly would be a very empowered Russia. And I don’t think anybody benefits from that, especially not neighboring countries.
The war has imposed a strain on both Western and Ukrainian capacity. Are you not worried about divisions widening in the months to come?
It’s up to the Ukrainians to decide how much more they can do and will do. It’s their country, their sovereignty that they are defending first and foremost. Of course, they are at the same time defending us as well — the entire rules-based world order.
It’s struck everybody by surprise how united the West was at the beginning and still is. I don’t think the West has ever been this united. And let’s just keep it this way. It’s very important that we do understand that Ukrainians are heroically fighting for all of us and therefore we should help them.
In Europe, it was fashionable for a time to let go of our defense industry and divest our defense forces, to not increase defense spending. We now have to do the opposite, not just for Ukraine, but strategically for the future. We have to invest heavily into the defense industry. It’s very worrying that we see Russia producing more than they did before the war, when it comes to weapons and ammunition. We just have to realize that in order to stay safe in the future, to be able to live the European way, we just have to take better care of ourselves when it comes to defense and security. Everybody has to do their bit. And that’s the Finnish message. And we’re trying to lead by example.
Finland has a long, difficult history of living next to Russia and finding accommodation with the Kremlin. Are there conversations about what living with Russia looks like in the aftermath of this war?
It’s very good question. And I think what many haven’t perhaps realized is that this is not just Putin’s war. It seems that the Russian machinery, so to speak, has been preparing for this for a very long time. They have been actively waging war since [the 2008 invasion of] Georgia and 2014 against Ukraine, with the illegal annexation of Crimea. Of course, Putin has been in power during this time, but for more than two decades, he has built an infrastructure around this. And there could have been two decades for somebody [in Russia] to tell him that it’s not okay.
So if Putin goes it’s very unlikely that somehow Russia will become a peaceful normal democracy. I would claim that us in the West, we would not wish for anything simply more perhaps than that the ordinary Russian would have a say in the direction that the country is taking, that Russia would open up for civil society and become a normal democracy. But while hoping for that, we have to prepare for the worst and the worst is that Russia remains like it is and perhaps even worse in the future.
Finland, like its Baltic neighbors, recently implemented a ban on Russian vehicles entering the country, per an interpretation of E.U. sanctions. Is this fair to ordinary Russians?
Yes, sanctions do hurt normal people. And in a country like Russia, it could easily say that it’s perhaps not fair because it’s not a normal democracy. People can’t really choose. But I don’t think we have a choice. Russia and the Russian people do realize that waging such an unfair and illegal war simply comes with a price. And it’s very important that we show that.